Practice Makes Perfect
Once paralyzed by public speaking, Roxane Sutherland ’87 now practices what she preaches
Written by Rhonda Morin
Roxane Sutherland ’87 was in the eighth grade when she got the crazy idea to run for a seat in a student club. She’d have to give a speech before the student body at McLoughlin Junior High School, so she bought a new dress and scratched out some remarks in preparation. On the day of the speech, she entered the auditorium—bleachers filled with teenagers and the hum of their collective voices—climbed the steps to the podium, looked out at a sea of faces and walked off. She didn’t set foot on a stage again for 17 years.
Sutherland dislikes public speaking to this day. She has a particular aversion to speaking to a room full of people she doesn’t know. Yet, Sutherland is a highly skilled and polished public speaker thanks, in part, to a Clark College education.
The communications and humanities division chair, who has taught public speaking, interpersonal communication and small-group communication for 25 years at Clark, is an alumna who got her start with financial help from the Edda McCordic Talent Award for Speech scholarship, at age 30.
She hadn’t planned on attending college. Married to Dean Sutherland ’88 directly out of high school, the couple began having children within four years of their marriage. Life was busy; she sewed the family’s clothes and actually ground the wheat for bread. Dean went into politics, eventually serving as a state senator. Public appearances being part of the job, Dean encouraged his wife to enroll in college and take a speech class to help overcome her anxiety of public speaking.
Sutherland’s first course was with Orv Iverson ’63, a legendary communications instructor and chair of the speech and theatre department. Iverson is renowned for the dozens of contests his students won in speech and debate from 1970 to 1998.
Sutherland was frightened of Iverson and overwhelmed with the course demands. She didn’t know that a student could drop a course, so she reluctantly settled in. “I didn’t have fun, nor did I enjoy the course, but I learned all the fundamental skills,” she said.
It was not unusual during the morning of a class presentation to secretly hope she would crash her car on the way to campus. And, shortly before her class speeches, Sutherland would dash off to the ladies room to retch.
Two years later, she gold medaled in three events at Phi Rho Pi, the national speech and debate championship in Odessa, Texas.
Present to perform
“Presentations are performances,” said Sutherland in her present-day office that is filled with pictures of her children, grandchildren and posters of the Vancouver Bike Club, where she volunteers. “You must prepare and practice.”
She’s been doing just that since joining Iverson as a colleague on Clark’s speech and debate team in 1987. Upon graduation from Clark with a 4.0 GPA, she went on to receive a bachelor’s at The Evergreen State College and a master’s in speech communication at Portland State University. She eventually returned to Clark to teach, received tenure in 1994, earned a Clark Faculty Excellence Award and national recognition in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers and Who’s Who of Women in Education.
The first tip for a successful speech is to get the audience’s attention, she said. Find a story to tell and link it to the topic of the speech. Next, tell the audience what you are going to tell them; then tell them; and finally, repeat what you told them.
“Don’t memorize your words, unless you’re an actor with a script. Instead, memorize only the main points,” she said.
Breathing deeply helps you relax, and power stances, such as feet shoulder-width apart and arms skyward done before going on stage, give you confidence.
Sutherland still uses these methods, whether she’s standing in front of her students or speaking before community groups. She credits Clark with widening the possibilities.
“Clark College changed my whole self-concept. And the education opened doors I didn’t even know were there,” said the former Alumni Association Board member who is also a parent of a Clark alumnus.
Since 1999, Sutherland and her husband have been paying it forward through an endowment they established following the death of her mother who encouraged Roxane to pursue her educational goals. The Roxane Sutherland Communication Scholarship requires recipients to take three basic communication courses, one before receiving the award and the remaining courses within one academic year.
It’s not a financial need-based scholarship and that matters to Sutherland. “Those who fall between the cracks can still get access to the funding. Such as those whose families could contribute to their education, but choose not to,” she said.
Speaking in front of a large group of people doesn’t get any easier, despite having nearly three decades of professional experience.
Sutherland is an introvert who thoroughly prepares before she takes the risk of public performances.
Preparation, combined with listening and creating connections for shared understanding with other humans are the main elements of interpersonal communication that Sutherland regularly shares with her students. That and encouragement.
“If you tell yourself you’re ready, you can do it—you will have a better opportunity to succeed.”